Published December 24, 2016
Scuba divers in the Gulf of Mexico made a surprising discovery when they came across a pristine, primeval forest about 60 feet underwater and only 10 miles off the Alabama coast.
The Bald Cypress forest has been buried under the ocean sediments in an oxygen-free environment for over 50,000 years and researchers believe that the massive turmoil from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 likely uncovered the hidden trees.
The trees, which were protected due to the lack of oxygen, are so well-preserved that when they were cut they still smelled like fresh Cypress sap, said Ben Raines, the executive director of the nonprofit Weeks Bay Foundation, which researches estuaries, according to LiveScience.com.
The site was discovered shortly after Katrina, when a dive shop owner informed Raines that local fishermen had discovered a fishing spot teeming with fish and other aquatic wildlife. The owner, fearful that Raines or other divers might discover a shipwreck or something that could potentially be looted, didn’t reveal the whereabouts of the forest until 2012.
When Raines finally was given the location of the site, he dove down in the Gulf and found the Cypress forest in pristine condition. The trees had formed an artificial reef with fish, crustaceans, sea anemones and other creatures making homes in the fallen logs and stumps.
"Swimming around amidst these stumps and logs, you just feel like you're in this fairy world," Raines told LiveScience.
A team of scientists from around the Gulf Coast area have created a sonar map of the area and analyzed two samples Raines took from trees. The carbon isotopes from the samples that Raines’ extracted showed that the forest was about 52,000 years old.
Researchers from University of Southern Mississippi and Louisiana State University are excited about the find and hope that it will reveal some secrets about what life was like in the Gulf during the so-called Wisconsin Glacial period, when sea levels were much lower than they currently are.
"These stumps are so big, they're upwards of two meters in diameter — the size of trucks," said University of Southern Mississippi scientist Grant Harley.
Scientists, however, warned that they need to get to work sooner rather than later before marine animals move in and destroy the forest. Harley estimates they have just two years before the forest is trashed.
"The longer this wood sits on the bottom of the ocean, the more marine organisms burrow into the wood, which can create hurdles when we are trying to get radiocarbon dates," he said. "It can really make the sample undatable, unusable."